Bolivia on the brink

John Crabtree
3 October 2005

Bolivia’s constitutional tribunal has lobbed an unexpected bombshell into the preparations for the 4 December 2005 general elections. On 24 September, it announced that the distribution of seats in congress would have to be changed to allow for demographic shifts, and demanded that the present congress make the necessary changes to the electoral law by 15 October so that the elections can proceed on time. Any delay may mean that the elections will have to be postponed.

The tribunal, which has the final word on matters pertaining to the country’s constitution, was ruling on an appeal from congressmen from the eastern department of Santa Cruz, lodged in July, which demanded that its share of seats in the chamber of deputies should reflect the rapid increase in its voting population. The electoral law is supposed to take into account the results of the 2001 census.

Region and nation in Bolivia

The country’s interim president, Eduardo Rodríguez Veltzé, has promised that the elections will go ahead on schedule, and that a new elected president will take office on 20 January to replace him – though on 2 October he threatened to resign if the 15 October deadline for redrawing the country’s electoral map is not met. Rodríguez, who was previously head of the supreme court, became president on 10 June following the weeks of demonstrations and protests that brought down the government of Carlos Mesa. Rodriguez is Bolivia’s fifth president in so many years, and he has made it clear that the election of a government that will provide some stability is his overriding goal.

Also by John Crabtree in openDemocracy:

“Bolivia’s retreat from civil war” (June 2005)

“Peru: the next Andean domino?” (June 2005)

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The December elections are for president, vice-president, members of both houses of congress, and for departmental prefects. The chamber of deputies has 130 members, elected under a hybrid system of proportional representation and first-past-the-post, while the senate has twenty-seven members, three for each of Bolivia’s nine departments. The system of representation – in both houses of congress – tends to favour the smaller departments at the expense of the more populous ones.

Any reform of the law at this point in Bolivia’s electoral cycle is bound to be controversial. In part, this is because campaigning for the elections has already begun, and the parties have already selected their candidates for congress. The deadline set by the national electoral court for parties to choose their candidates passed on 5 September. Assuming that congress responds to the tribunal’s demand and now passes an amendment to the electoral law, the parties will be required to make changes to their lists of candidates in those departments where the distribution of seats changes.

The main beneficiary of the changes will be Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands. It will probably gain four more seats in the chamber of deputies, to reflect the fact that its population is growing faster than anywhere else in Bolivia. The department of Cochabamba in the centre of the country will probably gain two seats. The main losers will be the poor, highland departments of Potosí and Oruro, as well as the capital La Paz, where many of Bolivia’s highlanders have migrated over recent decades in search of employment and better living standards.

Who gains, who loses?

The constitutional tribunal’s decision has important implications for the outcome of the presidential elections. Bolivia has a unique system in Latin America, whereby if no presidential candidate achieves a plurality (50% plus one) of votes, the newly elected congress has the task of selecting the next president from the two front-runners. Since no presidential candidate has achieved a plurality in any national election over the last two decades – and December’s is unlikely to be an exception to the rule – the distribution of seats in congress could provide the key to who becomes Bolivia’s next president.

The front-runner in the polls is currently Evo Morales, the leader of the country’s coca farmers (cocaleros), candidate for the leftwing Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement toward Socialism / Mas) and the one Washington most fears. Not far behind him is former president Jorge Quiroga, an economic liberal and friend of the United States. A third candidate, Samuel Doria Medina, a businessman, is also a realistic contender, although support for him has waned in recent weeks. Whoever wins is unlikely to receive much more that a third of the vote.

The redistribution of seats will probably benefit Jorge Quiroga and Samuel Doria Medina at the expense of Morales. Both Quiroga and Doria Medina are set to poll more votes in the lowland departments, where traditionally rightwing politicians do best. Morales’ main constituency is precisely in those highland departments that stand to lose seats. The effect of any redistribution will make it harder for Morales to gain the parliamentary support he will need if he is to secure the presidency. He will need, for instance, to rally support among the migrant population in rural areas of Santa Cruz.

The tribunal’s decision is therefore an obstacle to Morales’s ambitions that he will have to try to counter. However, it will be difficult for him to argue that the outcome is unfair, since Santa Cruz indeed suffers from under-representation. It will also be difficult to challenge the probity of the constitutional tribunal, since this is one of the more respected of Bolivia’s otherwise discredited political institutions. Rather, he is likely to argue that the timing of any change is inappropriate, and that the rules of the game should not be changed once the match is in progress.

Also on Latin America’s politics and social divisions in openDemocracy:


Guy Hedgecoe, “Losing Ecuador” (April 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, Nèstor Kirchner’s Argentina: a journey from hell” (May 2005)

Arthur Ituassu, “A big mess in Brazil” (June 2005)

Nick Buxton, “Bolivia in revolt” (June 2005)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, “America’s protean left: José Miguel Insulza and the OAS” (July 2005)

It is unlikely, however, that the present congress will heed such arguments and refuse to introduce the changes that the tribunal is demanding. Mas is the second-largest party, and on its own cannot block the measure. Most of the other political parties represented in congress are, in one way or another, supporting the presidential campaigns of Quiroga and Doria Medina. Their inclination will therefore be to approve a measure that would give succour to their own preferred presidential candidates.

The tribunal’s decision will help feed longstanding regional antagonisms in a country where political divisions are reinforced by centrifugal tendencies. Bolivia’s most economically buoyant department, Santa Cruz, has been demanding a greater degree of independence from the government in La Paz. The elite which controls the region’s politics, has objected to moves to renationalise Bolivia’s oil and gas industries, based in Santa Cruz and the south-eastern department of Tarija, and raise the taxes paid by foreign investors. Generally, cruceños have welcomed the tribunal’s verdict as a step in the right direction.

This is not the reaction, however, in the Mas strongholds of Potosí, Oruro and La Paz, where people resent what they see as the arrogance of the cruceño elite and are suspicious of any increase in the political power it wields. The election therefore promises to reflect a polarisation in Bolivia between east and west, lowlands and highlands, and right and left.

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